Horizon Zero Dawn Is The Best Open-World That Shouldn’t Be

Open-world games are a little bit exhausting. I say that knowing that some of my all-time favourite games are open-worlds, but that’s offset by the fact that the vast majority of games I abandon are open-world too. Similarly, The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction are two of my favourite movies, but that doesn’t mean I want every flick to be two and a half hours long. Open-worlds are great, but not every game needs to have one – and the best example of this is Horizon Zero Dawn.

It fits all the basic hallmarks of an open-world; it’s gorgeous, it’s loaded with collectibles, there’s variety in the terrain and the encounters, and most importantly, you can ignore a lot of it and just crack on with the story. I don’t resent Horizon’s open-world the way I do with others, and that’s because it allows me to just forget about it. Some games force you to spend time exploring and appreciating the wonderful work of the developers, or just put grindy roadblocks in the way to force you into spending more time exploring. As open-world games become more homogenous, the tick-box activities feel more and more redundant, and it starts to feel like there’s no reason for them to be that way at all.

I know sometimes people like myself who work in the games industry have a coloured view on this. We often have to play games we’re only tepid on, getting through them in a short space of time in order to move onto the next, so we appreciate brevity. For regular players who play far fewer games and can shell out up to £80 for one these days, extra content means extra fun, right? Except it doesn’t always work that way, and I played HZD back when it released in 2017, before I worked in this industry, and I felt the same way then.

While I appreciate that Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t force its open-world upon you, you are free to explore it at any time – but it often isn’t worth it. Probably because the game keeps you on a fairly linear path throughout, with most of the world being empty and bland. I get that everyone is off in their own isolated tribes, but the world feels too barren. It doesn’t feel like it’s a real place that reacts to you or to any of the other folk who live in the surrounding areas. Machines are gathered in predetermined areas and just kind of stand there until you disturb them.

Far too much time is spent riding from one area to the other with nothing of interest to spot along the way. It’s a beautiful game, and through the storyline and sidequests, it gives you a lot to do anyway – I’m not complaining about the open-world because it’s light on content. My playthrough (Frozen Wilds included) took 45 hours, and big chunks of the map are still clouded over because I never felt like clearing them would be worth it. But that content could easily live comfortably in a smaller, more focused world.

Open-world games definitely have a place; Red Dead Redemption 2’s huge world always has interesting secrets to tell you and wandering around Night City was probably the only thing I enjoyed about Cyberpunk 2077. Meanwhile, Spider-Man: Miles Morales offered the same open-world of Manhattan as the first entry, but by making Harlem the heartbeat of the story, managed to completely reimagine the setting. Whether you go big or small, open-worlds can work, but too often it feels like they’re added in without purpose. I think there is a purpose to it in Horizon, but it doesn’t work, and the game would be much better with a more streamlined approach that let you branch off into open areas, yet didn’t rely on a sprawling and mostly empty open-world.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want Forbidden West to be open-world, I just hope it learns from the original mistakes. While the more closed off areas to explore worked for The Last of Us Part 2 and God of War, I don’t see Horizon going the same way. It will be an open world again, and will likely be filled with busywork, but hopefully the move to San Francisco and the increased power of the PS5 will allow the world to feel great, not just look great.

Next: It Is Way Too Soon For The Last Of Us PS5 Remake

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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey

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